I Battled Gyozilla at Kenzo

Most ramen joints are strutting their stuff right now.  Neck in neck with tacos, ramen was the top trend in the GTA in  2013.  Large windows showcasing the interior cramped quarters have become the norm for these eateries, so I was intrigued when I hit Kenzo noodle house on Dundas street over lunch.  Blinds cover the windows below a modest red sign and a logo of a rather mean looking dude with his arms crossed.  It seemed a bit taboo. Swinging open the door, I felt a little like Anthony Bourdain on CNN’s Parts Unknown until I quickly realized the blinds were likely there to keep out the sun and not to hide something forbidden.  The decor was plain; in fact almost run down.  A combination of tables and booths line the walls which are covered with aged pictures advertising Matcha tea smoothies.  The creepy white ceramic cat which features in the majority of Asian restaurants stared and  waved at me with that look I don’t quite trust.

A pleasant waitress came by quickly with a glass of water a handed me a menu which looked like it had been dropped in a puddle and then used as a origami medium to create that creepy white cat or some other creature.  It consisted of a number of ramen bowls, categorized into basic, hot, cuisine and  tonkotsu.  There were also a few interesting sides including a breaded pork chop,  gyoza and octopus balls.  As usual, I ordered the gyoza dumplings and opted for the tonkotsu ramen. You have the option of three levels of spice, so I ordered the middle intensity.  The soup was out in minutes, served on a tray with shichimi and pepper. It was a pretty soup, topped with finely slice scallions, bok choy, bamboo shoots, roasted pork, egg and a fishcake.  The broth was a vibrant, milky white contrasted by specks of red indicated that some heat would ensue.  It had a balanced taste with a bite (definitely don’t go level 2 if you don’t like spice) that didn’t overpower the dish.  In fact, there was no prevailing flavour which made for a nice base.  The liberal use of scallions really helped the soup and the other ingredients, including the noodles, were cooked properly.

Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95
Tonkotsu Ramen $10.95

Unlike the other ramen houses I have been to, the Gyoza came after the soup.  I choose an order of three as opposed to the full order.  When they arrived I realized why there were blinds were on the windows.  They were housing Gyozilla, the largest Japanese dumpling I have seen in a restaurant.  I felt feeble as I lifted my puny chopsticks to battle my pork filled foe.  Although a little greasy, they popped with flavour, especially when coupled with the tangy sauce on the side. I eventually won the battle, but it took three or four bites each to do so.

Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50
Gyozilla Dumplings $4.50

My Take

Kenzo is like a B movie, offering one of the largest cast of ramen bowls in the downtown core.   While other ramen houses have fancy decors and lines out the door, Kenzo is modest in appearance and appears to have a devoted following (there was a steady stream of people the whole time I was there).  Relatively speaking, it’s almost unmentioned on urbanspoon.   After conquering Gyozilla in an epic battle, I did feel a bit like Anthony Bourdain in a Walter Mitty sort of way.  Having seen the octopus balls at another table,  I’d come back for the sequel, this time turning my attention to Oodako, the giant cephalopod which ravished villages in the B movie classic  King Kong vs Godzilla. My chopsticks are ready.

Oodako
Oodako- My next target

Kenzo Ramen on Urbanspoon

Sandwiched Between the Young and Old at BarVolo

BarVolo got me thinking about what I was doing in 1985, the year it was established.  I was a 12 year old elementary school student whose diet consisted of cooked ham on white, apples and a thermos full of fruit drink.  The highlight of my school day was sniffing copies of handouts from the ditto machine like a drug addict.

Here’s a few other food things that happened in 1985

  • James Beard died at the age of 81.
  • New coke was released only to be scrapped later the same year, spawning the old but new Coca-Cola classic.
  • James Dewer, inventor of the twinkie in 1930, died.
  • Raspberry Beret by Prince hit #1 on the charts.

Source:   http://www.foodreference.com/ (a good reference site for food geeks).

BarVolo is a small brewpub located near Yonge and Wellesley.  There are a handful of tables and a bar area that stands 15 comfortably. It has a vibe of a old schoolhouse, the centrepiece a large blackboard boasting over 30 types of beer (and a couple of wines and ciders) ranging from house brew to hearty stouts and porters. Otherwise, you can order well over a hundred bottles including some rare and expensive choices from the cellar.  They don’t take reservations, so you leave your name, slink up the bar and hope for the best.  A look around at the crowd suggested that I was among the 5 or 10 people in the entire bar that was probably alive in 1985.

One of my highlights is the fact that they serve 6 different cask ales including  their own black ESB.  It was a good punch in the mouth although the aftertaste was a little acrid. Next,  in homage to my daughter,  I ordered the house ale swag out (imperial stout with swag). As an uncool parent, I have been instructed that I cannot use the words YOLO or swag in any context at any time. She never said I couldn’t drink it though.  It turned out to be a killer version of a great winter beer.  The 8.5 percent alcohol was subdued by the intense malt and hop flavour.  Great balance.

When you ask for food, you are handed a laminated menu and a pen to check off any of the many menu offerings. It consists mainly of snacks and nibbles including cheeses, pates, terrines and charcuteries. Condiments are also available for a price. You can also grab one of a half dozen sandwiches if you want. I opted for a taste of each of the major categories, which they arranged on a platter. Included were smoked duck sausage ($5), clothbound cheddar ($5.50), venison terrine ($5), a brooklyn’s finest pickle ($3) and peanut bacon fudge ($5).  I also ordered some hot trap mustard on the side ($1.50).  It was a delightful mix of taste and textures.  The duck sausage was melt in your mouth delicious.  The pickle was spicy with a distinct crunch.  The cheddar was firm and salty; a true reflection of an artisan cheese which deviates a bit from the original.  The terrine was decent but didn’t burst with the cherry and nut flavours I was promised.  The sourdough bread (from nearby Woodlot) and mustard were wonderful compliments, nicely adhering  the diversity of tastes on the plate.

I ordered the fudge because it was the only thing that slightly resembled a dessert on the entire menu.  Whether it was the contrast of the sweet against the salty and sour flavours of the rest of the plate or the fact it was just delicious fudge, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The specks of bacon scattered among the sweet yet savory peanut flavour just worked.

Platter with pickles, mustard, venison terrine, fidge, duck sausage and cloth bound cheddar
Platter with pickles, mustard, venison terrine, fudge, duck sausage and cloth bound cheddar

The fish board was equally delicious.  Smoked salmon, trout and pickled herring were served with a FANTASTIC horseradish sauce and a unique but delicious slaw that I’m still trying to figure out.  The pickled egg and beans added some nice acid to the board.

Fish Platter $18
Fish Platter $18

My Take

BarVolo is a great venue for those who want a little food with their beer (which includes 6 casks and a number of house brews).  That said, the grub is far from substandard although some may be reluctant to pay $3 for a pickle and a buck and a half for a ramekin of mustard (sounds like a lyric from the Tragically Hip’s Little Bones in a time where Gord Downie still had hair and most patrons were still in diapers).  There’s a spectrum of menu items packaged in bite size and sharable morsels which can appease a solo diner or a table of 6.  The biggest issue is whether a table of 6 is even possible.  The place is small and doesn’t take reservations, leaving those waiting to frolic in a holding tank the size of new coke’s popularity. It’s more crammed than cozy. Plus, I get a tad annoyed when establishments boast about how big their lines are on facebook and twitter, especially when they don’t have the greatest means of dealing with them.

Although 1985 produced some nasty and forgettable things, barVolo wasn’t one of them.  Despite the fact that it’s inundated with clientele who weren’t exposed to Reaganomics or the Flames’ only Stanley cup win, there was some solace when a trio of 60 something hipsters walked in, looked at me and likely wondered if I was alive the last time the Leafs won the cup.  Regardless of whether one can relate to Pierre or Justin Trudeau or anybody in between, those who appreciate good beer with salty snacks (I didn’t try the sandwiches) will enjoy barVolo.  After all, the small confines physically don’t allow for a generation gap anyway.   YOLO, right?

Bar Volo on Urbanspoon

Fare..Eat..Ales Predicted Food Trends of 2014

Fried Green Everything

It’s said that deep frying makes anything taste better…so why not herbs and greens? Some of the better dishes I have eaten recently have been accented by crispy kale, sage or some other morsel that normally doesn’t come fat-infused. It’s pretty, delicious and leaves a place for kale in the event it gets displaced by some other vegetable in 2014.

Turn the other cheek

Beef cheeks have been popping up on menus as of late.  In particular, they are staples in tacos, perogies and other dishes.  They are cheap and tough but extremely flavourful and tender if cooked properly. Plus, they appease the hipsters who still embrace the nose-to-tail concept as well as those who want to push the envelope but aren’t adventurous enough to try testicles, rectums or other internal organs. Look for pork, veal and fish cheeks to step (or swim) forward this year.

You’ll be my honeysuckle, I’ll be your honey bee

Food trends often go full circle and honey is a good example.  Once an ingredient used in everything, fear of a worldwide bee shortage plus the emergence of other sweeteners with bull shit health claims put honey on the back burner.  It looks like its coming back with a vengeance.  It’s local, fresh and versatile.  Look for honey to be slathered all over sticky ribs and delicately drizzled over fresh cheeses, thick yogurts and  fresh pastries in 2014.

I got your goat!

Goat is a cheap and flavorful staple in many parts of the world and yet it still remains relatively unused as a major protein in major Canadian cities.  The wild success of Stephanie Izard and her Girl and the Goat and Little Goat diner concepts may creep north of the border.  Carbon bar is already offering goat rib fridays.   I think others will follow suit and offers it seven days a week.

Plates of the Caribbean

The demand for explosive flavours coupled with an overpopulation of restaurants serving Latin and Asian flavours leads one believe to that impatient foodies will want new tastes and flavours. Ingredients like jerk spices, plantains, okra and scotch bonnets coupled with the versatility of a large array of protein sources make Caribbean food a front runner.  In addition, cooking methods ranging from stewing to the grill allows for a diversity of dishes on any menu.  I see “Cool Runnings” for Caribbean in 2014.

Brown Rice

With the gluten free movement in full force, patrons are looking for alternatives to quinoa and the numerous other grains they claim to adore.  Brown rice can improve dishes made with white rice in nutritional value, colour and taste.  When toasted it can serve as an excellent filler for dishes that typically rely on gluten-filled bread crumbs.

Cauliflower

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock eating red velvet cupcakes, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the trend typhoon that is cauliflower.  Called “the new kale”, cauliflower’s versatility has expanded beyond being covered in Cheez Whiz in order to fool the kids into eating it.  Now, it can be shaved, breaded, roasted, deep-fried, formed into patties, made into soup or served in an omelette.  It even comes in orange, green and purple varieties for those who require additional visual stimulation.

Count your Beans

The lowly bean has been overshadowed by the lentil over the past few years.  Despite the fact there are a few dozen types of beans readily available, they haven’t graced tabletops regularly since Grandma’s mixed bean salad at the annual family picnic. Sure, the southern barbeque trend has lent way to a million variations of baked beans but the alternatives  including black-eyed, pinto, lima and fava bean may surge this year as a cheap, attractive and tasty backdrop to a number of proteins.

One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish

It’s hard to find a menu without fish.  Gone are the days when salmon is thrown on the menu Keg style to appease the peskies*.  Fish of all shapes and sizes (including the very ugly halibut and terrifying monkish) are now the main attractions on all kinds of menus and should be the focal point in 2014.   Old school favorites such as ahi tuna, snapper and sea bass are back while newcomers such as sturgeon and mackeral are emerging as foodie favorites.  In addition, fish is a better compliment than red meat and chicken to other trendy foods such as lentils, rice, quinoa and beans.

Loco for Local

The demand for local food is nothing new but the trend will only increase.  It’s intuitive to think that in-season produce is a must but embracing flavors that make us truly Canadian will be the rave.  Maple syrup is the new agave nectar.  Squash, celeriac, cranberries, fiddleheads, sea buckthorn and  sunchokes are all Canadian favorites with distinct flavour profiles which induce both a taste good and feel good character.  In other words, in addition to the demand for Canadian ingredients there will be more demand for Canadian flavours in 2014.

In Summary

Although Spanish and Latin flavours will continue to be the trend, watch for the bold flavours of the Caribbean to become more mainstream in 2014, another reason why I think goat and beans will join the party.  In addition, restaurants will step up in an effort to redefine Canadian flavours (including local honey) and the masses will respond.  The movement toward safer offal will continue as will the gluten free movement.  Cauliflower is the new kale (although kale will now be fried and served as a garnish) and fish (whether old favorites like ahi tuna or new wave sturgeon) is the new protein.  All in all, it will be a swing back toward lighter foods with big, fresh flavours  and a step away from the messy, rich ones which dominated 2013.

*peskie- Pescatarian who may or may not have a gluten intolerance.

Sharing Inferiority and Ghosts of Ronaldo Past at Chiado

Portugal reminds me of Canada in that both have major inferiority complexes.  Canada lags behind the Americans in important things like Olympic gold medals, cheap book prices and more recent the value of the dollar. The states also have more restaurant chains, larger portion sizes, cheaper chicken nuggets and more childhood and adult obesity (although Canada is making valiant efforts to try and catch up on the latter).

Portugal, on the other hand, is overshadowed by Italy, Spain and France.  In a CNN travel report in 2012 examining the world’s most romantic nationalities, Spain, Italy and France  placed 1,3, and 4 respectively while Portugal did not even make the top 10, finishing behind the Americans, Irish and Vietnamese.

On the soccer pitch, Portugal historically lags behind their European rivals.  Italy, France and Spain have all won european and world championships whereas Portugal is still seeking its elusive first win. There was some redemption recently when Portugal gained a world cup entry with an impressive second leg win over the Swedes. In addition,  Portuguese phenom Cristiano Ronaldo took back the Ballon D’Or, the award for European soccer player of the year. Things are looking up.

When looking at Toronto’s dining landscape, the big three reign supreme.  Year after year, Italian, French and Spanish restaurants top critic’s lists of best in the GTA and many of the new trendy restaurants that have opened recently are Spanish tapas joints like Patria, Carmen and Bar Isabel. When asked about the big three, Joe Q Foodie will easily cite the fact that the cuisine is all about respecting the fresh ingredients and using simple cooking methods.  When asked about Portuguese cuisine, however, he will use his high school geography knowledge and assume fish. He faintly remembers Siri Siri sauce as he nervously shuffles his iPhone in his cardigan pocket wishing she was there to help (afterwards he secretly asks her only to be disappointed that she only brings up the wikipedia page for “sauce” but with more investigation discovers it’s actually piri piri sauce).

After a pipe burst at Adega, my group was rerouted to Chiado on College street.  It’s a quaint, attractive venue adorned with colourful paintings and well dressed waitstaff. We were seated promptly and received a very good explanation of the menu.  One of the signatures of the service is the presentation of a fish platter; a visual aid boasting the wide array of available choices from the sea.  Included in the mix were three whole fish choices.  For the indecisive, they also offer a tasting plate featuring three cuts chosen at the chef’s discretion.

Like soccer, the wines of Portugal are overshadowed by the products of Italy and France (I will politely leave Spain out of the equation).  My experience with Portuguese wine has been limited to my mother buying one bottle of Mateus a year, having one glass and reserving the rest to clean silverware or something other household use.  I was pleased to see a huge variety of wines from the mother county featured on the menu and quite enjoyed the poppy, fruity Luis Pato wine made with the Marie Gomes grape. I’m a sucker for a fringy type wine (I love Austrian Gruner for example) so I really liked it…maybe a little too much.

The amuse-bouche was a beautiful cheese served with a balsamic reduction and drizzled with honey.  It worked much better than my picture did.

Amuse Bouche- Cheese with Balsamic and Honey
Amuse-Bouche- Cheese with Balsamic and Honey

For an appetizer I ordered the grouper carpacio atop white asparagus, topped with pine nuts and seasoned with citrus.  It was quite a sizable portion and was more like a ceviche. It wasn’t the prettiest dish and probably would have benefited from a little colour and/or spice.  Maybe some green asparagus instead of white might have worked.  Other than the appearance, I enjoyed it but there was way too much.

Grouper Carpacio $16
Grouper Carpacio $16

Also at the table was the grilled squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks.  It was a very well executed dish and rivaled any calamari those Italians make.  Once again, it was simply presented but lacked a visual punch.

Grilled Squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks $15
Grilled Squid w/fresh coriander, lemon, garlic, extra virgin olive oil served with roasted sweet peppers, charred tomato and caramelized leeks $15

I like the thought of playing with my food so I tackled the whole ocean perch.  I was also sold on the promise of a large and tasty cheek.  The fish arrived with the token potato and vegetable side.  The ocean perch is quite bony so I felt a bit like a nervous surgical intern, especially when I offered a piece to a colleague at the table and failed to remove all the bones. I think the waiter sensed my frustration and politely offered to remove the other cheek for me. With my knife and fork he worked with a surgical precision and pulled out a large cheek which made the whole experience worth it.

Ocean Perch
Whole Ocean Perch

I had an indecisive friend sitting beside me who ordered the sampling plate.  Much to my delight, she was kind enough to share a little of her octopus, monkfish and skate.  The skate and octopus were delicious but the monkfish stole the show. It was easily the best thing I ate all night.  I was tempted to cause a distraction to swipe the remaining filet but kept my composure. As an afterthought I should have showed her a picture of a monkfish and asked her if she actually felt comfortable eating one of the ugliest fish on the planet. Damn hindsight.

Skate, Monkfish and Octopus Taster
Skate, Monkfish and Octopus Taster

For dessert, I went for the molotof which was described as a light meringue of egg whites served with vanilla cream sauce.  The irony of this is that I think meringue is one of the most ridiculous food trends going but I was intrigued by the promise of the lightness compared to the brick hard meringue served everywhere else. It was a good call. Unlike the starters, it was presented pretty.  It was light and delicious and my friend cashed in the IOU on the monkfish and scooped a few bites.

Molotof $12
Molotof $12

She ordered the peras cozidas (poached pears with Madeira wine, citrus, cinnamon and saffron). The pears were attractive, fresh and laced with punchy, spicy flavour.

$12
Peras Cozidas $12

My Take

I don’t mean to pick on Portugal but they are an easy target just like us Canadians (plus I haven’t forgiven them for ending England’s slim world cup dreams in 2006).  The food, however, is underrated.  It has the same philosophy as Spain and Italy in that it focuses on the freshness of the ingredients.  As for Chiado, it’s a cozy place which nicely represents the beauty of what the ocean and Portugal has to offer.  I agree with the reviews which question the prices but I can’t agree with those who call the service cold and pretentious.  I found it professional and if anything confident, especially when he dissected my fish with the precision of Cristiano Ronaldo. Speaking of which, a few more monkfish filets may make me forgive him for scoring  one of the penalty kicks that knocked England out of the world cup for good 8 years ago.

Chiado on Urbanspoon

Review: Breaking Bad at Carbon Bar

I finally got Netflix a few weeks ago. Part of the reason was to finally remove myself from the list of the 25 people who haven’t watched Breaking Bad. After watching a few episodes and watching it win at the Golden Globes, maybe I should pay homAge to the show that made chemistry cool again. Whether it’s the structural changes needed to denature the protein in an egg or the intangible spark which may exist with two people sitting across each other at a table, chemistry is an ingredient you can’t pull off the shelf. It can, however, be captured in those who understand and can embody the variables which may result in the sought outcome.  Just ask Walter White.

Carbon (the foundation of organic chemistry) is a new restaurant/lounge that has opened at the corner of Queen and Church. Owned by the Note Bene group, the website describes it as a place “where fun-loving aficionado’s, gourmands and bon vivants meet to share un-pretentious snacks, plates and platters delivered with impeccable hospitality in a space inspired by the storied pAst of a rock’n’roll discotheque, an upstart TV station and a media giant’s studio”. When you walk in, you’re not sure if you’re entering a dance club or a Moxie’s.  Smiling woman greet  you and offer to take your coat.  When you climb the few stairs and turn the corner you walk into “the space”.  It has dimensions that could double as Walter’s meth lab. It’s a roomy, square dining area with a big bar, an open kitchen and a combination of booths and tables. The ceilings are high and it’s decorated in a simple but attractive fashion.

From the bar, there’s a decent cocKtail list, a nice array of wine and a somewhat unimpressive list of cliche Beer.  I started with the Smokin’ Manhattan ($14), made with tobacco-infused Maker’s MArk, bitters and a couple of booze soaked cherries.  It was well made but the price put it on the upper limit of acceptable.

Smokin' Manhattan $14
Smokin’ Manhattan $14

The second drink was the Carbon bar Caesar ($16), made with tequila, chiLi, lime, clamato and a 37 spice rim.  It was surPrisingly unremarkable and nowhere worth the price.

Carbon Bar Caesar $16
Carbon Bar Caesar $16

The hit of the night seemed to be the Volstead which a few of my friends at the table ordered. Made with gin and Montenegro and flavoured with lemon, orange bitters and Cucumber, it’s a perfect summer drink that still holds it own during the winter months.

I ended with a Kensington brewing company Augusta ale which was one of the only draught beer worth drinking.

The menu is small plate and mainly focuses on the trenDy cuisine of the southern US with a spattering of favorites from other parts of the earth.  It’s always interesting going out to a restaurant with the concept of sharing when you’re with “peskies” (a generic term which includes the likes of  peScatarians, those with gluten intolerences and pescatarians with gluten intolerences).  The waiter was excellent.  He knew the menu cold.  For example, he identified there would be gluten in the soy sauce of the jerk cornish hen and in the sugar coating of the pecans in the celery, apple salad.

We sampled a number of dishes so I’ll be short but sweet:

Hot Mess ($11)-sweet Potato, cheese curds, Crema, pickled jalapeño, chopped brisket

It tastes like it sounds.  A well executed and modern Version of Canada’s iconic poutine.  Delicious.

Hot Mess $11
Hot Mess $11

Raw Salad ($12)– avocado, pear, radish, sHaved coconut,corn nuts, coriander, lime viNaigrette

Fresh, acidic and pRetty.  Definitely a sharable because it starts Snappy but can a bit boring after a Few bites.

Raw Salad $12
Raw Salad $12

Quezo de Cabeza ($13)- Fried suckling pig, pork ‘n’ beans, Hen’s egg, pickled Beets.

The perfectly cooked egg sat atop this childhood favorite.  It had great flavour although I wished the pork was fried a little more and was a little less fatty.

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Quezo de Cabeza $13

Blackened Sea Bass ($22)– yuCa, chili, lime, coriander, tomAtillo chutney

The tender bass was complimented with an array of flavours but the highlight was the tomatillo chutney.  A well balanced dish.

Sea Bass $22
Blackened Sea Bass $22

Jerk Cornish HeN ($18)- black eyed peas, Coconut milk, mango & papaya salsa

Although the chicken was moist, the seasoning was a little lack lustre. The dish had a uNiformly smoky flavour which could not be overcome by the timid salsa.

Jerk Cornish Hen $18
Jerk Cornish Hen $18

Oak-Fired Octopus ($21)- okra, sAusage, hominy coRn & lobster gumbo

All the components of gumbo with the addition of tender pieces of Octopus.  It worked.

Oak -Fired Octopus $21
Oak -Fired Octopus $21

Porcini and Grits ($19)- grits, sautéed porcini mushrooms, deep fried egg Yolk, crisp kale, huitlacoche dust (a type of corn fungus)

The table consensus was this was the best dish of the night.  The flavour was incredible but very rich so definitely recommend as a shared plate. The crispy kale was a great touch. It could have used  more mushrooms.  Great for the pEskie at your table as well.

Porcini n Grits $19
Porcini n Grits $19

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream ($9)- rice pudding, barberries, wild blueberries,candied sunflower and pumpkin seeds, spiked eggNog

Sparked a little controversy at the table.  The rice Pudding was average but the addition of the other ingredients pumped it up.  The ice cream was seasoned well with earthy spice and sweet pumpkin. I think warming the rice would have added to the overall experience.

Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9
Pumpkin Pie Ice Cream $9

Sorbets and Ice Creams ($3)– apple, lychee kombucha, buckthoRn, goat’s milk ice cream & Wild honey

A refreshing and delicious finish to the meal.  The buckthorn seemed to be the favorite. Was initially served with graham Crumbs but that didn’t work for the peskies so it was replaced quickly and without question.

Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)
Apple, lychee kombucha and buckthorn ($3 each)

My Take

Carbon is Note Bene’s response to the continued demand for casual eateries which serve good food instead of standard and water downed versions of foods that were popular two years ago. I think they succeeded. The cocktails are a bit pricy, especially the less than impressive caesar.  The beer selection is more trendy than it is good.  Otherwise, it’s a safe but well executed menu that was not shy on flavour.  The highlights were the porcini ‘n grits, octopus with gumbo and the sea bass (especially the tomatillo chutney). The service was incredible and environment (including the music) was current, hip and applicable to the diverse clientele scattered across the roomy  interior.  Like Breaking Bad, Carbon makes chemistry cool again. In this case, the chemistry is a mix of great food, courteous and intelligent service and a great environment.

The Carbon Bar on Urbanspoon

My Favorite American Restaurants of 2013

Please keep in mind that I have been to select cities throughout the US this year so this list is far from comprehensive.  I have, however, been to enough to warrant a list paying homage to restaurants  which stood out during my travels.

10. Voulas Offshore Cafe– Seattle

This cute, old school diner is not far from the University of Washington’s beautiful campus.  The staff are friendly and courteous. Watching them set up the coffee station for the line of people who couldn’t get there early enough to beat the lines is endearing.  It has a great feel with an amazing biscuits and gravy you wouldn’t expect on the West Coast. The greek omelette was a reflection of good old fashioned family values.

9. Bop ‘n Grill– Chicago

Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, this joint has burgers and bop plates (essentially rice plates topped with a number of choices). I went with asian flare and tried the umami and kimchi burgers although other unique combinations are available. The deep flavours lovingly punch you in the mouth while filling it with bite after bite of moist, meaty goodness. This ain’t McDonald’s.

8.  Tamale Place– Indianapolis

You wouldn’t expect Indianapolis to be a hotspot for Mexican food but the aptly named Tamale place is amazing.  The passion and care in the preparation of each one is clear with every bite.  If you can, try one of the dessert tamales. The nachos and salsa are brilliant too.  It’s clean but not fancy but with those tamales, it doesn’t need to be.

7. Pastabilities- Syracuse

A pasta lunch set up like a cafeteria in downtown Syracuse doesn’t sound like a top 10 candidate…until you eat there.  The place is always packed for a reason.  First, the food is amazing.  Whether it is the pasta bowl doused in their famous hot tomato oil, the moist and flavourful meatball sub, the freshly made side salads or the delicate but delicious pizza, this place would appeal to anybody from age 1 to 100. Second, the prices are terrific.   It’s open for a more formal sit down dinner at night which I imagine is just as good.

6. Roast– Detroit

Michael Symon offers a fine dining experience in downtown Detroit, especially for the carnivorous at heart. One highlight is the wood fired grill which, despite the volatility and unpredictability of the open flame, produced a fantastic medium rare new york strip. There’s something about slurping bone marrow and eating sweetbreads while watching a pig spin around on a spit that just works for me.  Oh, they have naughty deep fried brussel sprouts too.

5. Union Woodshop– Clarkston (Detroit)

Union woodshop in Clarkston (just north of Detroit) was featured on triple D in the Kid Rock episode. Although somewhat reluctant to take advice from somebody who wears fur coats yet married PETA-happy Pam Anderson, I was excited to try it. My best advice is to act like your parents and show up for dinner when this place opens at 4 pm.  There are two reasons for this.  First, you may have a chance at the sauce laden burnt ends (brisket) which are delicious but when they’re gone, they are gone.  Second, good luck getting a seat after 430 without having to wait an hour. Sorry, no reservations.  It has everything you would expect in a smokehouse and more.  It produced some of the best pulled pork I’ve had in while.  Otherwise, everything from the sauces (try the Chinese Char Siu) to the butterscotch pudding are delicious.  They also have a gluten free menu, pizza and even a steak if you want it. The price is right too.

4. Clarkston Union– Clarkston (Detroit)

Kid Rock also brought Guy down the Road to the Clarkston Union.  Built in an old church, it comes complete with church pews, a bingo board and yes, huge lines.  It sports one of the best craft beer menus in Detroit, offering regional and national brews in taster sizes if you want a variety. It has a gastropub menu with its famous mac and cheese (with or without lobster), sandwiches, burgers with  pot pie and meatloaf specials.  Even the plowshare platter, a delicious array of meat, cheese and veggies is abundant and delicious. This church offers the holy trinity of a great dining experience: Great service, great food and great atmosphere.

3. Lucky’s Cafe– Cleveland

I do not go to Cleveland without going to Lucky’s.  In fact, I think once I went to Cleveland to go to Lucky’s.  Also featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, Michael Symon showed up to promote this local gem. It’s all about fresh.  The front is filled with fresh baked goods and the staff is busy picking ingredients out of the garden you see through the window during the summer months. The “biscuits” is one of the best breakfasts I have ever eaten.  From the fluffy cheddar biscuits and eggs to the sensual sausage gravy, it is complete nirvana.  In fact, I awake craving it at times.  In addition, there are great beverages and lovely lunch items like a delicious curried chicken sandwich and a made from scratch Reuben that’s to die for.

2. Topolobampo– Chicago

Rick Bayless is considered one of the best Mexican chefs in North America.  Now I know why.  Once you navigate through the loud and hectic sister restaurant Frontera, doors open and you enter the serenity of Topolobampo.  From the minute you are seated you are treated like royalty.  Hands down the best service I had all year.  The waitstaff part like the red sea when you walk through the front of the kitchen to get to the washroom. The sommelier was informative and not pushy.  Our waiter knew everything about every dish. The menu changes frequently but you can always count on a delicious selection of nouveau Mexican dishes with bold, explosive flavours. Even better is everybody at the table can order what they want without the need to have a complete consensus in order to opt for one of the many tasting menus ranging from vegetarian to one dedicated to mole, Mexico’s most prized dish. Topolobampo is proof that not all eateries run by celebrity chefs are overrated…some are just “increible”!

1. Girl and the Goat– Chicago

Stephanie Izard in many ways has redefined what a great chef is.  Her infectious smile, lovely attitude and commitment to working vigorously within the walls of her two West Randolph restaurants have been rewarded with numerous accolades including a James Beard award.  The menu is a mosaic of tastes and textures which tickles every sense.  Whether it’s the escargot ravioli,  the pig face which gets smothered in egg yolk or the goat belly confit, the attention to detail from both a visual and taste perspective were amazing.  Translating passion to a plate is an art and Izard is Picasso.  I’d tour this gallery anytime.

My Favorite Canadian Restaurants of 2013

Once again, I had the privilege of being able to eat at a number of amazing restaurants throughout the year.  Although they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, these are the ones that stuck out in my mind as the best.  My rules are simple; the restaurant has to be in Canada and I have had to eat there in 2013. This year, they range from a pizza bar to a swanky joint in the financial district.  Enjoy!

10. Yakatori Bar- Toronto

This Baldwin Street joint is clean and fresh with a fun environment and diverse menu.  I have had the soup there three times and it blows my mind every time.  It is always homemade, always vegetarian and always bursting with flavour.  You can watch a Leafs game while sipping a microbrew, sake or a reasonably priced cocktail.

9. Pie- Barrie

 Most bars stick made-from-frozen pizza on the menu somewhere below the wings, nachos and burgers.  Featured on “You Gotta Eat Here”, Pie proves that quality  pizza can be the centrepiece of a bar menu.  It features a number of thin crust gourmet pizza that are not only fun but compete with some of the trendy metropolitan joints in flavour. The restaurant itself is large and roomy and would appeal to anybody from a family of four to a group of guys heading out to watch the game.

8.  Park- Montreal

Cutting edge Asian-inspired food beautifully presented in a rather casual environment. I only went for brunch but appreciated the small but diverse menu.  The salad, bibimbap and Jae Chae were elegant and full of flavour.  I would easily return for dinner (the sushi looks beautiful) the next time I’m in Montreal.

7.   Lisa Marie- Toronto

Matt Basile (aka Fidel Gastro) is a genius.  Street food is given a home within the bricks and mortars of Lisa Marie. The menu is infused with creativity. The pork belly cheese thang, a taco made with fried cheese instead of a shell is one example.  So is the Caesar served with a 4 oz beer chaser. Every time I get on his website I see new dishes which look as delicious as a trailer for a new Tarantino movie.

6. Barque- Toronto

Barque redefines the smokehouse by infusing Roncesvalles into the decor the same way they inject marinade into their brisket.  Speaking of the brisket, patience is a virtue.  It is the best I’ve had in the GTA and the highlight of the menu.  The rest of the fixings are pretty good too.

5.  Stock- Toronto

Realizes that fine dining is more than the price on the menu.  You are pampered with over the top service, lavish dishes like enormous diver scallops and in-house chocolate truffles wheeled to your table on a cart. You also get to mingle with the likes of couples wearing matching fur shawls. It’s ridiculous and delicious.

4. Sidedoor- Ottawa

Last year’s number one, I still go back when I’m in Ottawa despite the numerous other choices I have.  I love the tuna sushimi.  It’s a fun, roomy place that is a mix of all sorts of things.  I sent a few colleagues there this year and they came back raving.  Guess I’m not the only one.

3. Harbord Room- Toronto

Just because a restaurant isn’t new, it doesn’t mean it isn’t good. Harbord room continues to have one of the best burgers in Toronto and you can suck it back with a number of innovative and award-winning yet expensive cocktails.  It’s refreshing to go to a place where you can order anything on the menu and not be disappointed. Any place that openly apologizes for not brining the cornish hen long enough before you order it and still giving you one of the best you’ve had all year works for me.

2.   Bar Isabel- Toronto

A quirky,  fun environment with no pretension. The Chips, Boquerones, Piquillo, Jalapeno dish is one of the best things I ate all year.  Offers a great cocktail list along with a number of beer and wine selections although the latter are a bit on the pricy side.  You leave wishing you could have eaten the whole menu.

1.    Mezcla-Montreal

Mezcla is the true definition of fusion, merging bold Latin flavours with Canadian ingredients and European traditions.  The service is impeccable and the decor has a mystical, almost haunting vibe.  The Tiradito de Venado and Fois Gras (deer carpaccio with fois gras torchon) tops my 2013 list of dishes, the perfect showcase of the restaurant’s innovative and forward thinking philosophy.